Alone on the Appalachian Trail

PZ has his Sunday Sacrilege post up today. It’s all about this idea of God as a father figure that brings us closer to the Universe, that makes us feel important.

Beyond just the family and tribe, though, this vision has been extended to the entire universe. There is a great Patriarch in the Sky, who is our leader and guide, responsible for making the grand strategic decisions about where our tribe will go, and is also watchfully making sure the unity of the tribe is not disrupted by wayward ideas from nonconformists. He has a central concern that we all share, that our people should thrive, and even if he is stern at times, it is because he cares so much that we succeed. And of course, he knows each one of us personally, just as the leader of tribe or clan in our pastoral days would have, and he can give us an approving stroke or a damning angry smiting, depending on whether we help or hinder the work of getting the flocks to the summer pasturage.

But scientists and atheists (I would be more specific and say anti-theists) shatter that faux relationship.

It (said shattering) makes that whole business of breaking the news about Santa Claus look like small potatoes. Reality is harsh, man.

But it is reality. We’ve done the paternity tests, we’ve traced back the genealogy, we’re doing all kinds of in-depth testing of the human species. We are apes and the descendants of apes, who were the descendants of rat-like primates, who were children of reptiles, who were the spawn of amphibians, who were the terrestrial progeny of fish, who came from worms, who were assembled from single-celled microorganisms, who were the products of chemistry. Your daddy was a film of chemical slime on a Hadean rock, and he didn’t care about you — he was only obeying the laws of thermodynamics.

This is true and only certain stances will deny it: the anti-science stance, the ignorance stance, the religion stance. And those often all go come as a single package deal.

But there’s good news – and it’s from someone that actually exists.

But here’s the wonderful revelation. If you’re a well-adjusted person, once you’ve discarded the unhealthy fictitious relationship with a phantasm, you can look around and notice all those other people who are likewise alone, and you’ll realize that we’re all alone together. And that means you aren’t alone at all — you’re among friends. That’s the next step in human progress, is getting away from the notion of minions living under a trail boss, and onwards to working as a cooperative community, with no gods and no masters, only autonomous agents free to think and act.

PZ wasn’t making any reference to hiking trails, much less the Appalachian Trail (AT), but just the word “trail” in the context of being alone triggered a whole slew of thoughts for me.

I was fortunate enough to hike the 100 Mile Wilderness last summer and I quickly came to discover an entirely new culture out on the trail. My poor knees only suffered for 8-9 days (while being partially supported by an infected ankle wound), but it was the toughest physical thing I’ve ever done in my life. Let me start with a description of the trail.

The 100 Mile Wilderness is considered the toughest part of the entire 2,174 mile AT. It runs from Abol Bridge just outside Baxter State Park (where the Northern Terminus of the trail is located on Katahdin) to the hiking town of Monson, all within Maine. It’s recommended that hikers bring 10 days worth of food as well as the rest of their supplies. This makes for a pretty heavy load, even for thru-hikers (those doing the whole trail from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Katahdin, or vice versa). My own pack came in around 45lbs.

I started and finished with two friends. I’m not sure if I could have done it alone. We started at Abol (where some kind gentleman smashed my window and stole my CD’s – because CD’s were worth so much in 2009) and ended at Monson. The rationale for going north-to-south was that the northern end is less mountainous than the southern end and it would an easier start since our packs would be heaviest in the beginning. It didn’t really matter. It was still horribly difficult, horribly painful.

While I was with friends, I only recall my own world on a lot the trail. There’s a lot of silent suffering. And that’s part of the pull of the AT, I think, part of its charm. But at the end of the day, no one is really alone. Hikers will gather at campsites, most of them with lean-to’s. And that’s where the culture of the hiker is solidified.

Everyone out on the trail understands through what everyone else is going. Everyone knows that particularly sharp joint pain. Everyone knows how distant a shower feels, how far away the idea of clean clothes really is. It’s its own culture.

I specifically recall one arduous, torturous day. It was already raining before we even woke up. We had forded rivers with our regular hiking boots on because it would be too painful to try and take them off to put on sandals. And really, we didn’t think we could get any more wet. We were wrong, but it was too late when we found that out. But we trudged on, probably near 15 miles. There was a lot of yelling and screaming, too. It wasn’t ever directed at each other – you need each other – but it was there. It was boiled pain and frustration come to the surface. But it had to end. We saw the sign – “150 feet to lean-to”. Such relief. Until, after spending all my time since walking in that river trying to keep my feet dry, I managed to slip into the swampy, flooded waters at the bottom of a hill. It just sort of just right, though. Now I was angry, frustrated, and in a way, alone.

My world was one of huge discomfort at that moment and it wasn’t anyone else’s. That is, until we climbed that final 150 feet. The lean-to was nearly filled. Five hikers had seemingly used every hanging nail available (so mice don’t get into everything). All their gear was spread out, just as they were, already in bed long before the sun had set. They didn’t look like they wanted to move. Sure, we had our tents, but no one wants to set those up at the end of a day like this, and in the rain. And then that one special thought, maybe the most important one on the trail, crossed all of their minds: There’s always room for one more.

It was only a six person lean-to, but we managed to squeeze in six men. And that’s the culture of the AT in a nutshell. Those 5 hikers saw the look on our faces when we came upon a filled lean-to at the end of the day. They knew our pain. They weren’t about to cast us aside. We weren’t alone.

I think a good life experience for everyone capable is to hike either the AT or some other significant trail system. It’s entirely different from the coldness one might find in Time’s Square, or even Portland, Maine. Of course, it isn’t free from that coldness – families will do simple overnight hikes, taking entire lean-to’s from the thru-hikers, offering them no relief in their 5-7 month journey. (I don’t know how the thru-hikers do it.) But for among those who are on the trail for any length of time, there’s a joining warmth.

The Appalachian Trail is an isolating beast, but those who discover it are ever alone.

The Liberal Cup and Shaw's Lodging

By Michael Hawkins

There are some downright awful businesses out there. Most big box stores fall under this heading. Then there are smaller businesses like T’s Golf in Manchester. But one can only stand reading about these sort of disgraces for so long. It is far better, indeed, to read about the good places.

One such place, without any doubt, is The Liberal Cup. It has the best food, the best environment, and a great owner: the squash is amazing, the people are great, and the owner, Geoff Houghton (who, in the interest of full disclosure, is not a personal acquaintance), has an incredible business sense about him. There isn’t a thing I don’t like about the place.

The only establishment, I think, that can rival the Cup is Shaw’s. No, not that Shaw’s. This one is located in Monson and offers more than groceries.

Located in a town through which Appalachian Trail thru-hikers must pass, Shaw’s ( is made for the hiker. After walking the 100 Mile Wilderness, I stopped here with friends. We found ourselves stuffed with the most satisfying all-you-can-eat breakfast ($7) we’ve ever had.

And the owners, my goodness. Dawn MacPherson-Allen and Susan Stevens bring an environment that is like visiting an almost overly hospitable relative. At no point can anyone feel like this is a business; Shaw’s is like a home.

The world needs more places like The Liberal Cup and Shaw’s Lodging.